Another frigate! This part of the Mediterranean seemed to have become a French sea! Ramage hurriedly passed the lookout's report to Aitken and Southwick and tried to think clearly with the thunder of gunfire still numbing his brain.
Le Tigre had surrendered but there was no time to take possession of her: that probably meant that she would wait until she saw if her compatriot defeated the Calypso and then hoist her colours again. But what of the second frigate?
There was no choice: that made the decision a lot easier, he thought grimly: no time for second thoughts or misgivings -or, for that matter, doubts. He called Orsini, told him of the second frigate, and ordered him to warn the officers at their quarters, and make sure that all the guns were loaded with round-shot.
There was no chance of any tricks to gain surprise: the approaching frigate would have seen the gunsmoke, even if at this distance she could not distinguish the British colours. There were probably a few moments of doubt as they saw a French hull attacking a French hull, but the smoke would have been enough to 'send their men to general quarters: by now all her guns would be loaded and run out, ready to engage whichever of the two ships proved to be the enemy.
"Get the boats hoisted out and towing astern," he said to Aitken. That would reduce the risk from splinters.
"It'll make a change," grunted Southwick. "Just a ship-to-ship action, with no nonsense."
With his "no nonsense" Southwick dismissed actions against ships of the line and disabled frigates: the forthcoming action, he clearly considered, would be fought on equal terms, frigate against frigate. All else, his four words implied, was heresy; not to be considered by honest men.
How to tackle this frigate? A battle of broadsides or try to board? Ramage picked up the telescope and looked at the distant ship. Yes, like Le Tigre, she was a 32-gun frigate, the same as the Calypso; gun for gun they would be evenly matched. How many men would she have on board? Like the British, the French were always short of trained seamen; but unlike the British they frequently drafted soldiers on board. It was not unusual to find a ship with half a battery of artillerymen serving the guns. With luck, Ramage reflected, if there was anything of a sea running, the artillerymen had to fight seasickness as well as the enemy, so their rate of fire was slow and erratic.
But the sea was not rough; the brisk breeze was scudding clouds across the sun and knocking up white horses, but not enough to take a frigate roll or interfere with queasy gunners.
He turned to Aitken: "Steer straight for her, and warn that the funs on the larboard side will probably be firing first."
And that, he thought, covers the tactics: stay up to windward of the enemy, so that the smoke of the guns blows clear, and then it would be a straightforward battle of broadsides, hoping that the enemy would make a mistake.
Through the telescope he could see that the approaching frigate was painted black and her sails had enough patches to indicate that she had probably been at sea some time. Was she part of a squadron which had included the two ships of the line? Was it a coincidence that she was coming along the coast of Capraia when Le Tigre was at anchor doing repairs? Ramage shrugged: the answers to the questions hardly mattered: she was approaching Tom ahead, and that was the only thing that concerned him for the moment.
The Sea Service pistols stuck in his belt were bruising his ribs; they grated every time he took a breath. He pushed them further round after deciding not to put them down: there was always a chance that the Calypso would end up boarding the frigate, and he did not want to waste time looking round for a brace of pistols.
He found he was becoming pleasantly excited: the prospect of MI evenly matched fight against another frigate was sufficiently unusual to be welcome.
He gave an order to the quartermaster and told Aitken to harden in the sheets: he wanted to get to windward just another point, so there would be no question about the Calypso keeping up to windward of the enemy. Of course, the French frigate could always tack to the north-east - she could even turn on her heels and make a bolt for it. But Ramage was sure that she would come down to help Le Tigre. The French captain would not want to face a double charge - of cowardice, and deserting a comrade.
The frigate was a mile away now, sailing fast along the coast. Ramage glanced at the chart: there were no outlying rocks: they could manoeuvre without risk, except that if either of them was dismasted they would be blown on to the rocks, since this was a lee shore.
Could the Frenchman try any tricks? Ramage thought carefully and decided there was nothing he could not counter in time.
Three quarters of a mile, and her bow wave was curling away like a white moustache, with her sails bellying with the wind. All her guns were run out; they jutted from her side like stubby black fingers. As usual, the first broadside would be the most important because it would be fired carefully by men not coughing from gunsmoke, stunned by the noise of the guns firing, or wildly excited by the ritual of loading and firing.
Half a mile. "Orsini," he called, "run round the larboard side guns and warn them that they'll be firing in a matter of minutes."
The Italian youth ran off down the quarterdeck ladder and Ramage was thankful he could trust the youngster: he not only understood the orders but what was more important he understood the significance of them. He had been in action dozens of times now and one of his proudest moments, Ramage knew, was that he had taken part in the Battle of Trafalgar. It was becoming clear now that that battle was going to be the new yardstick by which actions were measured. Previously a man could say, "I was at Copenhagen", or "I was at the Nile", or Camperdown, the Saintes, the Glorious First of June, and other men could measure him. But Trafalgar had changed all that: it had been a victory the like of which had never before been seen. It was a new Agincourt. Ramage thought, and it would be sufficient for a man to say quietly: "Yes, I was at Trafalgar."
But what mattered for the moment was that the Calypso was off the east coast of Capraia steering north for a French frigate. Compared with Trafalgar there was little honour in that; but an unlucky shot or splinter could make you just as dead. That was the ironic thing about death; you were still dead whether you died in a great victory like Trafalgar or from falling down a hatchway on a dark night and breaking your neck. Death worked indiscriminately.
A quarter of a mile. Ramage could imagine the second captains cocking the locks and jumping back out of harm's way, and the gun captains would be taking up the tension on their lanyards . . .
He had a momentary picture of Jackson, poised at his gun. The sandy-haired American would be grinning; not because he was amused but because he always grinned at times of stress. Along with half a dozen others still in the Calypso, Jackson had served with Ramage since before he had been given his first command, here in the Mediterranean; he had been one of the men - the most important man - helping in the rescue of Gianna from that beach at Capalbio. Gianna had come to regard him as a favourite retainer. And Jackson? Ramage had the feeling that he thought of her as a wayward niece.
Now the gun captains would be waiting for that black blur to pass twenty yards off a gunport; a black blur which gave them the signal to tug the lanyard to send the gun coughing back in recoil.
No, the Frenchman had not altered course. He was just about hard on the wind, thanks to a bend in the coast, and could do nothing to prevent the Calypso keeping up to windward.
As the Calypso's first gun roared out Ramage saw a spurt of smoke come from the muzzle of the first French gun. A moment later, as Southwick and Aitken gripped the rail at the fore end of the quarterdeck, there was a confused roar made up of the coughing of the Calypso's broadside and the lighter thudding of the French broadside. The sound of ripping calico warned of French roundshot passing overhead.
As though a flash of lightning on a dark night had lit up the scene for a moment, Ramage had a medley of impressions: the French frigate's black hull was stained with salt; the luff of the flying jib was wrinkled; there were at least two rusty holes amidships showing where roundshot had penetrated, and there were several more further aft, showing that several of the Calypso's gunners had taken a few moments to react to the rapidly passing target. The Tricolour was streaming out; the sails were even more patched than he thought from his view through the telescope. The small group of officers on the quarterdeck had crouched down as the Calypso passed.
And then he was yelling at Aitken while watching the passing enemy: "Come about! Don't let him get away!"
The last gun of the Calypso's broadside had hardly fired before topsails were slatting as the frigate tacked. Ramage realized that the enemy had the advantage in speed because she had all plain sail set; but she would be more difficult to handle with all that canvas. As the Calypso swung round to starboard, Ramage looked over the quarter at the enemy just in time to see her beginning to clew up her courses. So she was going to fight under t'gallants and topsails. Ramage was sure the French would soon furl the t'gallants; they were not handy sails for fighting - but furling them took topmen away from the guns . . .
The Calypso quickly turned and Ramage saw an opportunity. "Steer across his stern," he ordered Aitken. "We'll give him a raking broadside, even though at long range."
The Calypso seems to be spending most of the day raking French frigates, Ramage thought, although this time it would be at a range of a couple of hundred yards, instead of twenty.
As soon as the ship came round on to the other tack and Aitken had braces and sheets trimmed, Ramage watched the departing enemy frigate closely and gave helm orders which would make the Calypso pass across the enemy frigate's stern at an oblique angle, so that she had plenty of room to wear again to avoid running aground.
Now the Frenchman had his courses clewed up - and yes, he was furling his t'gallants: at least he was getting down to topsails, the usual rig for fighting. And it meant that he was slowing down, reducing the range for the Calypso's raking broadside.
By now the first of the Calypso's larboard broadside was firing again, the gunners hastily adjusting the quoin for the increased range. Ramage found himself counting with the slower rate of fire. He took up his telescope and trained it on the Frenchman's stern, and was just in time to see a spark as a roundshot hit a piece of metalwork, probably a fitting on the rudderhead. As his count reached sixteen Ramage realized that the French frigate - he had just read the name on the transom as Le Jason - was bearing away and was going to cross ahead of the Calypso. "She's going to rake us," growled Southwick.
"And there's nothing we can do to stop her," Ramage said quietly.
Nor was there. The Calypso was committed to wearing to get away from the shore, which was fast approaching, and the Frenchman would pass across her bow firing a raking broadside into her. Ramage thought of the ship of the line they had encountered earlier in the day: please, no damage to the jibboom and bowsprit!
The quicker the Calypso wore, the less time her vulnerable bow would be exposed to the Frenchman's broadside. Ramage listened to the slamming of the sails and hoped the gunners were hard at work reloading.
And then Le Jason was crossing the Calypso's bow, wreathed in smoke, her whole side a line of winking red eyes as her guns fired. Ramage heard a crash aloft and glanced up to see a wild shot had smashed six feet off the end of the foretopgallant yard. The calico ripping noise of a dozen more roundshot passing overhead showed him the French gunners had not yet settled down.
There were four or five shotholes in the topsails: nothing that needed repairing. And the jibboom and bowsprit were still standing, with no damage apparent from where Ramage stood.
"We've been lucky," he commented to Aitken, and a moment later saw he could turn the tables on the Frenchman.
"Luff up and we can rake his stern as he goes past."
He looked round for Orsini. "Warn the gunners that they'll be able to rake the Frenchman on the starboard side!"
By now the Frenchman was heading north-west, steering for the shore and obviously about to tack or wear. The Calypso bore up slightly and Le Jason's stern came round on to her starboard beam. Sounding like a huge drum being beaten irregularly, the Calypso's guns started firing, and once again Ramage saw sparks as round-shot glanced off metal. And the sternlights were now an irregular shape: instead of being rectangles enclosing the glass, they were ragged shapes, chewed at by roundshot.
Would it work? "Wear round," he shouted to Aitken, "we'll rake him again!"
The Frenchman seemed to be manoeuvring very slowly; after raking the Calypso, Ramage expected Le Jason to tack or wear to get offshore again, but she was staying on the same course, north-west, as though careless of the risk of going up the beach.
Then Ramage stared hard through his telescope. Le Jason was leaving no wake: she was stopped in the water! And he noticed that her rudder was hard over.
"She's aground, by God!" exclaimed Southwick just as Ramage was about to speak.
"We must have damaged her rudder with that raking broadside," Ramage said.
"How close in can we go?" Southwick growled, reaching for the chart.
"Close enough to rake her again,' Ramage said grimly. "And again and again. It probably won't take them long to repair that rudder."
Aitken gave orders to the quartermaster and the Calypso came round a few degrees. Ramage looked round for Orsini and sent him off to warn the gunners to expect to rake the enemy with the starboard broadside.
Ramage saw a red winking at the transom and realized that Le Jason had got a sternchase gun in action. Almost immediately there was a crash aloft and the Calypso's foretopgallant mast crashed down, hanging by rigging, the yard swinging like a pendulum.
"Go and sort that out," Ramage ordered Aitken. "I'll take over the conn."
Of all the damnable luck: at least, damnable for the Calypso and almost beyond belief for Le Jason. That a single shot from a sternchase gun should bring down the Calypso's foretopgallant mast was an almost unbelievable piece of good fortune for the French.
But it did not make the Calypso unmanageable. By now she had worn round and Ramage was giving the quartermaster careful orders which would bring the frigate into a good firing position.
Another red wink and puff of smoke at Le Jason's stern showed the French had managed to get a second sternchase gun into action, and Ramage found himself admiring their coolness; they were in a lot of trouble, but they still had the will to fight back.
Ramage heard nothing of the shot and assumed it must have missed. At that moment Orsini appeared in front of him. "A message from Mr Bowen, sir."
What had the surgeon to say at a time like this? "Well?"
"He said six men dead and five wounded, two seriously, from two roundshot and splinters, sir."
Ramage was dumbfounded: he had not heard or felt shot hitting the ship and knew nothing of casualties.
"Very well. Does Mr Bowen need help?"
"No, sir, I asked him. He has a couple of loblolly men and three seamen to help him, and that's enough."
Six men dead. . . And he had not realized that the ship had been hit. Yet when he thought about it, it was obvious that some shot from Le Jason's broadsides would have struck home. Fighting at these ranges meant casualties. He wondered how many Frenchmen had been killed.
Two points to starboard and trim the yards and sheets. That should bring them across Le Jason's transom. How was the Frenchman going to get off? He had run ashore at an oblique angle; there was just a chance that if he ran all his guns over to the larboard side, hardened in the sheets on the starboard tack and prayed for a strong gust of wind, then he might just come clear. But Ramage realized that would not help: the Frenchman probably had no rudder, or at least not one that functioned, and without that the wind would just blow him harder aground. Was he actually aground on the beach, or an offlying shoal? It was hard to tell from this angle.
Ramage decided that a hundred yards was as close as he was going to approach; there might be a spit of land or a spur of the shoal stretching well out, and having the Calypso going aground on the same bit of shoal would be a piece of irony he could do without.
"Do you need me here, sir?" Southwick asked. "Otherwise I'll go and give a hand clearing up that mast."
"No, I can manage," Ramage said. "The sooner we get that wreckage down on deck the better. It'll be ripping the topsail any minute."
The two pieces of the mast, along with the yard, were swinging like pendulums on pieces of rigging and halyards, and each time the ship rolled or there was a stronger than usual puff of wind, they slammed into the side of the topsail. Ramage could not understand why the splintered ends of the broken mast had not yet torn the canvas. Yes, he could order the topmen to furl the topsail, but the Calypso would be hard to handle with only the maintop-sail, and anyway Aitken needed the topmen to secure the wreckage.
Two hundred yards to go. Two hundred yards to sail and he had to make sure the Calypso passed about a hundred yards off the Frenchman's stern. The square on the hypotenuse - no, that did not apply because the hypotenuse was on the other side. Well, there was some mathematical formula to cover the situation, but he was damned if he knew it.
"You're sure Mr Bowen didn't need help?" he asked Orsini.
"No sir," Paolo said firmly. "There are only five wounded and he has them bandaged up. It was a shot from the first broadside," he added, to show Ramage that Bowen had plenty of time.
Once again Ramage stared over the starboard bow. They were approaching Le Jason fast now and Ramage imagined the French gunners hurriedly reloading the sternchasers. They would be under no illusion: they would know that within a matter of minutes they would get up the full raking broadside from the Calypso and the quarterdeck would be swept with shot. But - there, again a red wink and spurt of smoke as they opened fire at what must be the extreme traverse of the gun. Again Ramage did not hear the shot: perhaps it hit the hull well forward.
Five hundred yards . . . four hundred . . . three hundred . . . The Calypso'?, gunners would sight her out of the corner of the ports. Two hundred yards, and a hundred: gun captains would be taking up the strain on the lanyards and the second captains would have cocked the locks and jumped clear. Fifty yards and he could see the lettering on Le Jason's transom. The other sternchase fired and Ramage felt rather than heard a thud as its shot hit the Calypso's hull.
The leading gun in the Calypso's starboard broadside coughed and Ramage saw a spurt of smoke. Then the second gun, and the third. He picked up the telescope and trained it on Le Jason's stern. Yes, there was a cloud of dust, so at least one shot had ploughed through the planking on the transom. Yes, another puff of dust as another shot smashed through. Suddenly he saw a black shape rear into the air above the taffrail and realized that a roundshot had dismounted one of the sternchase guns.
One by one the Calypso's guns fired. A shot sent up a spurt of water twenty yards short of the French frigate: one of the gun captains had fired on the downward roll so that his shot fell short. It was an easy mistake to make: a matter of a second late in tugging the lanyard.
And that was the last gun. Ramage saw the spurt of dust it caused as it hit the comer of one of the sternlights. Now the guns crews would be hard at work sponging and ramming - worming too, by now, in case a piece of burning cartridge was left in the bore and likely to explode the next cartridge prematurely.
Suddenly Orsini was gesticulating at the French frigate and Ramage glanced across in time to see her courses being let fall. He snatched up the telescope and saw the yards being braced round and the sheets trimmed so that as soon as the huge sails tumbled down they filled and bellied out. A moment later the fore and main topgallants were let fall and as soon as the halyards had hoisted them the yards were braced and the sails trimmed.
What on earth was going on? As far as a puzzled Ramage could see, setting the sails would only drive Le Jason further up the beach. But the French captain must have a very good reason. And a moment later he saw what it was.
The frigate began to move slowly, and as soon as she had way on her yards were braced sharp up and she began to claw offshore.
At that moment Southwick hurried up the ladder, red-faced and breathless. "You've seen, sir? The dam' fellow wasn't ashore after all!"
Ramage shook his head. "No, he must have been caught on a spur of rock, And his rudder wasn't damaged after all: they must have had it hard over to try and get off."
"I hope the rock stove in a plank or two," Southwick growled.
Ramage realized he had a chance to rake the Frenchman's bow as he clawed off the shore and gave new orders to the quartermaster. It meant altering course only a point or two and the Calypso would pass fifty yards or so ahead of Le Jason before her captain had got his ship squared away properly for the beat to windward that would get him clear of the coast.
He shouted orders through the speaking trumpet to get yards braced and sheets trimmed, and then he bellowed down to the gunners to get ready for a target to larboard.
So an easy time passing up and down raking a stranded French frigate was turning back to be a battle of broadsides: Ramage thought of the six men killed already. What would be the butcher's bill before the sun went down? In all the actions he had fought up to now, in the Mediterranean and the West Indies, he had never suffered heavy casualties. Was his luck going to run out today? He had already had one lucky escape: if that ship of the line had pinned the Calypso across her bows, she would have sent across a boarding party which would have slaughtered most of the ship's company. Was this damned frigate going to do a lot of damage through lucky shots, like the one that had brought down the mast?
Ramage snapped out another order to the quartermaster and then asked South wick: "What about that damage forward?"
"They'll have the wreckage lowered in a few minutes, sir; there's no chance of damage to the topsail now."
"I hope it won't take too long; I want those men back at the guns."
"Mr Aitken has it under control, sir," Southwick said soothingly. "I say, are we going to rake that fellow again?"
"We're getting into the habit," Ramage said lightly. "Not that it seems to be doing him much harm."
"We've smashed in his sternlights!" Southwick said.
"Yes, but it's his jibboom and bowsprit we want to smash. Right at the moment we're doing as much damage as a crowd of mice."
By now Le Jason was plunging her way seaward, the waves from the shallower water slapping into her bow and sending up small sheets of spray which darkened the foot of her forecourse. She was beginning to pitch slightly and her Tricolour streamed out aft like a board.
As the Calypso sailed northwards to pass across Le Jason's bow with fifty yards to spare, she too began to knock up the spray, her starboard bow shouldering into the waves, sending the sea drifting aft over the deck like heavy rain. Ramage could taste the saltiness on his lips and noted that the wind was increasing, though the sky apart from a few scurrying clouds was clear and the usual bright blue that was special to this corner of the Tuscan coast.
Raking broadsides: he doubted if he had fired as many in his whole life as he had fired against Le Tigre and Le Jason. But as far as Le Jason's fighting ability was concerned - apart from the dismounted sternchase gun - he might as well be bombarding her with snowballs.
Well, in a couple of minutes he would have his next chance: with a bit of luck this broadside would really damage her bow. Even bring the foremast toppling down? He shrugged: one could only hope.
A gust of wind caught the Calypso and she surged forward, her bow wave hissing down her sides. The masts and yards creaked, acknowledging the gust rather than protesting at it.
"Orsini - whip round and tell the gunners they've two minutes!"
Ramage was sure that giving the gunners a warning when he could was increasing their accuracy: he had noticed that the broadsides had been fired with a comforting regularity, rather than three guns going off at once. The regular fire meant that the gun captains were firing when the enemy was precisely in their sights, rather than jerking the lanyards hopefully.
He looked across the larboard bow at the French frigate. One minute to go - and Orsini should have got to all the gunners by now. Half a minute - and he could begin to make out details of the Frenchman's rigging and patched sails. She had a figurehead but they had not bothered to paint it; the old paint was faded and peeling. Was that as a result of the Revolution, that seamen no longer bothered about things like figureheads? In the King's ships they were prized and regularly painted, and many of them were covered with canvas in rough weather to protect them.
Then the Calypso's first gun fired with a satisfying cough. The smoke would bother Aitken's working party, but they would have to cough and bear it: the faster they cleared away the wreckage the sooner they would be out of the smoke. They would not, of course, because most of them belonged to the guns, and as soon as they finished they would return to the guns - and the smoke.
The guns settled down to firing regularly and once again the smoke streamed aft up to the quarterdeck. Ramage watched the French frigate's bow with the telescope but could not spot any hits. Two shots fell short, sending up tall spouts of water, but there seemed to be no damage to the jibboom or bowsprit.
Southwick, also watching with a glass, gave a disgusted sniff. "Don't know what's happened to our gunners," he said disgustedly. "If they can knock us about with a sternchaser, we ought to do better with a raking broadside."
By now the Calypso had passed across Le Jason's bow and Ramage gave orders for her to go about, so that on the starboard tack she would range up alongside the French ship, exchanging broadside for broadside.
As the Calypso swung round on to a parallel course and while the gun crews prepared the starboard broadside, Ramage wondered whether to let fall the maintopgallant.
As if the French captain read his thoughts, he saw Le Jason begin to clew up her courses and, a minute or two later, start furling her topgallants, so that - now she was afloat again - she was back in a fighting trim of topsails only, matching the Calypso. Once again Orsini was sent round the gundeck with the orders that they should fire as soon as their guns bore, and Orsini had not returned to the quarterdeck before the first gun fired.
The range was about a hundred yards and Ramage decided to halve it, giving an order to the quartermaster to ease over to starboard half a point. The last few guns of the broadside had just finished firing when Le Jason opened fire, the usual red winking eyes passing down her side. Ramage heard an occasional thud as one of the French ship's roundshot landed but there were no screams of wounded men and no reports of damage.
Aitken came up to the quarterdeck to report that the wreckage of the foretopgallant mast had been cleared away, along with the remains of the yard.
"We have a spare mast, and a topgallant yard, and the carpenter says that anyway he can fish the damaged yard, sir," he said. "The sail/has only one tear in it, about eight feet long, so it won't take long to patch that."
Ramage nodded. They had been lucky: if the shot had landed a few feet lower, it might have been the foretopmast, bringing down the topsail.
For the next ten minutes the two frigates sailed almost alongside each other, exchanging broadsides, but without either ship showing much damage. Five more of the Calypso's men were killed by roundshot or cut down by splinters and number nine gun was dismounted by a random shot which came through the port and smashed into the carriage without hurting any of the men.
With the glass Ramage could see that the Calypso's gunners were firing reasonably accurately: the French frigate's side was now pockmarked with rusty marks showing where roundshot had punched their way through the hull. But she still kept up a regular rate of fire, replying broadside for broadside, aiming for the Calypso's hull, instead of following the usual French habit of firing at the rigging in the hope of dismasting the enemy.
They had been sailing alongside each other at a range of forty or fifty yards when Ramage commented to Aitken: "We seem to be drawing ahead of her."
"I had that impression, too, sir. Yet she has the same sails set and they are properly trimmed."
Ramage examined the frigate through the glass. Yes, there were a few more shot holes but she was still firing as fast, with smoke streaming out of her ports. Then he noticed a thin stream of water pouring over her side.
"She's got her pump going," he commented. "An odd time to be pumping the bilges."
Then he could see with the naked eye that the stream of water was getting larger: the pump must be working harder.
The water was clear, not stained, so it was not just a question of pumping the bilges to get the last few tons of water out of the ship to increase her speed. Had a lucky shot stove in some butts of fresh water? No, there was more water being pumped out than could be accounted for by that.
Again and again the Calypso's broadsides coughed out. Ramage thought of crashing alongside the ship and boarding her, an idea he later dismissed when he thought of the casualties.
Then Paolo Orsini said respectfully: "Sir, she seems to be a little deeper in the water."
And she was: as soon as Ramage inspected the French ship carefully, he could distinguish that she was throwing up a bigger bow wave and the pump dale was emptying as much water over the side as the pump could handle.
"She's got a bad leak," Southwick said happily. "But it's not from one of our shotholes, I'll be bound. She's not been rolling enough for any hits 'twixt' wind and water to cause her much trouble."
Ramage saw movement up in the bow and looked with his telescope, startled to see a group of men round the anchors. Suddenly an anchor dropped from the cathead and was then cut adrift so that it fell into the sea.
"Look at that!" Southwick bellowed, pointing astern, where a boat was bobbing half submerged in Le Jason's wake. "And there's another!" he exclaimed. "My oath, they're cutting their boats adrift."
"And their anchors," Ramage said. "They're trying to save weight!"
At that moment he caught Aitken's eye and both men nodded.
"She stove in a plank or two when she went aground: probably stranded on a rock and strained herself when they sailed her off," Ramage said.
Southwick groaned and Ramage stared at him.
"I was thinking of rescuing all those Frenchmen," the master explained. "They'll probably outnumber us!"
"And all the men in the other frigate," Aitken said. "We'll have five hundred prisoners!"
"Steady on," Ramage said. "We haven't captured either ship yet and this fellow is showing no sign of surrendering."
"Well, we don't want to board her unless we want wet feet," Southwick growled.
"No, we'll just hold off as we are and watch her sink."
And a few thousand pounds in prize money will vanish before our eyes, Ramage thought. There will be head money for the prisoners - but what a risk, to saddle the ship with so many survivors. But there was no question of leaving them to drown: the captain was cutting away the boats and anchors, and presumably the spare yards, masts and booms would be next to go.
Obviously he would have started all the fresh water, sieving in the casks so that the water ran into the bilge and could be pumped out. That would save him - well, if he was halfway through his cruise, about twenty-five tons.
"We haven't finished with her yet," Ramage reminded the two men. "As far as I can see, every one of her guns on this side is still firing ..."
Ramage tried to put himself in the place of the French captain. A bad leak, every spare man at the pump, cranking the handles round as fast as possible to keep a steady stream of water pouring into the pump dale and over the side. But men could only pump for a certain amount of time before becoming exhausted, and it was obvious since the ship was becoming lower in the water and the captain was getting rid of all the extra weight he could, that the leak was gaining on him: more water was leaking in than the pump could deal with. So it reduced itself to an interesting problem of time: just when would the captain decide that the battle with the leak was irretrievably lost, and surrender his ship? Or perhaps he was one of those fanatical captains who would fight on, letting the ship sink under him. Or he might have the sense to turn the frigate round and run her ashore properly, stranding her so that he could save his crew but knowing the British could never refloat his ship. Strand her and set her on fire after the ship's company had scrambled to safety.
Well, the way Le Jason was ploughing on eastward, keeping up a high rate of fire from her broadside guns, obviously her captain was not going to give in easily.
' He beckoned to Orsini. "Go down and see Mr Bowen: ask how many casualties we have up to now."
"We're taking quite a few hits," Southwick said.
"At least they're not doing their usual dismantling shot trick," Aitken commented. '
Coincidentally, at that moment the carpenter came up to report to Ramage: "Just sounded the well again, sir," he said. "We're not making any water."
Ramage nodded. "Very well; carry on, sound every ten minutes and report to me."
"We're rolling just enough to get an unlucky one 'twixt wind and water," Southwick said. "So's he," he added, pointing at the French frigate, "but he's getting sluggish: not rolling nearly as much now."
"Makes her a steadier platform for the gunners." Aitken commented.
"Aye, but wait until the water floods her hanging magazine," Southwick said. "No one's yet found a way of making wet cartridges fire roundshot!"
The Calypso's broadside sounded ragged now, not because the gunners were failing to do their jobs properly but every gun was reloaded at a slightly different speed, and now they had their target broad on the beam the guns' crews were loading as fast as they could, and as soon as the second captain cocked the lock and jumped clear the gun captain was tugging his lanyard.
Jackson, his face becoming blackened with smoke, was grinning with pleasure and urging his crew on to load faster. Rossi was bellowing out a string of Italian oaths but apparently because of happiness at being in action. The four Frenchmen were hurrying about their tasks, sponging, ramming and worming as though they had never done anything else. Stafford crouched over the lock every now and again to make sure that the flint still had a sharp edge and was delivering a good strong spark.
"You're not hitting her, Jacko!" he bawled amid the thunder of the other guns firing to the left and right.
"I dam' well am," Jackson shouted back. "She just won't sink!"
"Her pump's going," Rossi called. "Maybe you had a lucky shot!"
One more thump with the rammer and they sprang to the tackle and ran the gun out. Stafford stabbed down with his pricker and then pushed a fresh quill into the vent, shaking a small amount of priming powder into the pan. Then he snapped back the cock of the flintlock, and lifting his hand up as a signal to Jackson, jumped clear.
Jackson sighted along the barrel and waited as the Calypso rolled slightly. He tugged the lanyard on a downward roll a fraction of a second before the French frigate appeared in the crude sight and once again the gun sprang back with a bronchitic cough and a spurt of flame and smoke at the muzzle.
At once the crew again sprang into action. The soaking sponge was thrust down the bore and a powder monkey ran forward with a cartridge which Gilbert snatched up and slid into the muzzle. With the rammer poised Auguste lunged forward and thrust the cartridge down the muzzle and gave an extra hard thrust before withdrawing it and standing aside for a moment to let Albert put in the wad, which he thrust home and then stood back with the rammer as Louis came up, cradling a roundshot, which he rammed home, followed by another wad which Albert had ready.
Dropping the rammer, Auguste helped run the gun out and Stafford went into action again with his pricker. As Jackson prepared to sight along the barrel he saw the black shape of the French frigate through the port. Yes, her pump was going, and the wind was whipping away the water as it sluiced over the side from the pump dale.
Back on the quarterdeck Orsini came hurrying up the ladder. He saluted Ramage and reported: "Mr Bowen's compliments sir: ten dead and eleven wounded, three very seriously. He says there may be more dead that he doesn't know about."
"Yes," Ramage said, talking to himself, "they'll just drag bodies clear and leave them in the scuppers . . ."
Twenty-one dead and wounded, and the damned Frenchman seemed to be unscathed by the Calypso's guns. Admittedly they were firing into her hull and it was impossible to see what damage they were doing: they might be cutting men down in swathes, for all he knew, but it was not affecting the French ship's rate of fire, even though she was apparently slowly - very slowly, curse it - sinking under them.
A lucky dismasting shot might let the Frenchman escape yet. ' He looked at the Frenchman again with his telescope. Still the same group of officers on her quarterdeck. He swung the glass forward and trained it on the pump dale. Yes, it was still pouring out water, and the wind was whipping it away. He looked at the frigate's waterline. Yes! It was definitely a little lower. He waited a minute to make sure it was not the rolling, but then he was sure: he could no longer see the copper sheathing. That had been carried a good foot above the waterline, and now he could not see it despite the roll. So Le Jason was at least two and probably three feet lower in the water. What did that mean in terms of tons of water sloshing around below? Without knowing her tons per inch immersion - the number of tons needed to immerse her hull one inch - it was hard to tell, and he knew his own weakness in doing mental arithmetic. But it was scores of tons. The water was coming in faster than the pump could get rid of it, and that was all that mattered. Nearly all, anyway. If only he knew how much faster . . .
Options: he must consider them carefully. Yes, the Frenchman could turn back and make a run for the shore, planning to beach the frigate before she sank. Or he could carry on firing until the ship sank under him - it would take a brave man to do that after having cut all his boats adrift, and it would mean throwing his ship's company on the mercy of the British. And, Ramage thought, what were his own choices? Well, he could carry on as he was now and wait for the Frenchman either to turn for the shore or sink. Or he could haul off out of range and wait for the Frenchman to sink, even if he did not bolt for the shore. That way he would save his men.
But supposing the Frenchman managed to stop the leak? Supposing he managed to stop the water entering and pump out what was already in? Then, setting courses and topgallants (and royals too) she could make a bolt for it. If she escaped, he would look foolish. And he would get his knuckles rapped by the Admiralty.
No, there was no question of standing off, and unless the Frenchman turned for the shore, then this present battle of broadsides would have to go on, while the French pumped their way to windward.
While Ramage was watching the water pouring over the side from the pump dale he noticed a dozen seamen swarming up the forward shrouds. As he looked they worked their way out along the footropes of the topsail and within moments had started to furl it.
Furl the topsail? Leave only the maintopsail set? That would just above halve the Frenchman's speed. Why? There could be only one explanation - by slowing down the ship the French captain was hoping to cut down the rush of water through the leak. That must mean he had no hope of overtaking it with the pump without drastic measures.
Ramage told Aitken to furl the Calypso's foretopsail, so that they could conform with the Frenchman's speed. The alternative would be to weave across Le Jason's stern and fire raking broadsides. Was it worth it? The damned ship would sink anyway, and soon her rate of fire would begin to slacken as men were taken away from the guns to replace those exhausted at the pumps.
"Hard pounding," Southwick commented.
"Yes, but we don't have much choice. If we haul off and she stops the leak and gets away ..."
"Aye," said Southwick. "But she must be leaking badly if they have to slow down."
"She must have been making seven or eight knots when she went aground. If it was a sharp rock it could have stove in several planks, or started some butts."
Ramage watched Le Jason's side as another of the Calypso's broadsides coughed out, and saw several rusty marks appear on her hull. Well, his gunners were shooting accurately and with luck some of the shots were hitting 'twixt wind and water, increasing the flooding.
Ramage found himself almost sympathetic with the French captain; he had cut the quarterboats adrift and hoisted out the boom boats and dropped them over the side, so there were no boats for survivors: they would be left clinging to wreckage.
Taking some 250 survivors on board: one Frenchman for each member of the Calypso's crew. It was a daunting prospect: if the French were well led - and there was no reason to doubt that they were - they might try to take the ship.
"If we have to pick up survivors," Ramage told Aitken and South wick, "we put them below and then clap the gratings across the fore and maindeck hatch. Have them guarded by all the Marines and covered with a couple of guns loaded with caseshot, and then we'll land them on Capraia as soon as possible: I'm not risking having that number of the enemy on board a moment longer than necessary."
"It's a big enough risk that we'd be justified in leaving them to drown," Southwick said. "Ducking them in sea water isn't going to turn them into lambs."
"If it was us, we'd feel a bit hard done by if the French left us to drown," Ramage said.
"But we'd try to take their ship," Southwick pointed out.
Ramage shrugged his shoulders. "A hundred muskets and pistols aimed at them, and a couple of guns loaded with case, might put them off their stroke."
"Well, we'll need to bring them on board a few at a time, and make sure that we never have more than a couple of dozen on deck at a time," Southwick said grudgingly.
"Of course," Ramage said. "Don't forget they'll be a bit shaken up by the time we fish them out."
"The frigate hasn't sunk yet," Aitken pointed out. "Here comes another broadside," he added, gesturing to the rippling spurts of flame and smoke along Le Jason's side.
Aitken stared at the frigate. "She's definitely lower in the water now," he said. "She's gone down several inches since they furled the topsail."
Ramage examined the hull with the telescope. Yes, Aitken was right: the distance between the lower edge of the gunports and the waterline was less. And yes, the ship was beginning to wallow now. Ramage could imagine the great quantity of water surging round below, weight which transferred from one side to the other, and from forward to aft, with terrifying speed. Like swirling water in the bottom of a bucket. It would be a tremendous surge of water to one side which would eventually capsize her.
The problem of guarding survivors stepped several paces closer.
Five minutes and several broadsides later, Ramage happened to be watching Le Jason when he realized that she was now regularly rolling with a slow, almost inexorable movement: her masts were like upside-down pendulums and her gunners were slowing down their broadsides because they had to wait longer until their guns would bear.
Southwick, too, noticed the roll. "The leak is beating the pump," he commented.
"It's been doing that for some time," Aitken said. "Every man except those in the guns' crews must be working the pump."
Ramage pictured exhausted men hauling round the cranked handle of the pump. There was enough water floating around now to pick up things and block the pump, so that men would be constantly freeing the strainer. Round and round would go the crank, but the pump would never suck dry. The noise of the bilge pump sucking dry was, Ramage reflected, one of the most satisfying heard in a ship. It was one the French were doomed never to hear again - in that ship, anyway.
Yes, the rolling-was getting wilder; it was lasting longer as the ship heeled first to larboard and then slowly came over to starboard as tons of water swirled from one side of the ship to the other. The rush of water would, he realized, be enough to knock men off their feet; it would hinder men as they ran out or ran in guns. Soon the water must flood the hanging magazine. Even now, he guessed, the French were getting out cartridges and stowing them high enough to be out of danger from the surging water. But having so many cartridges out of the magazine always risked a flash from one of the guns, or an unlucky shot from the British. Then there would be a tremendous explosion, and the French would no longer be worrying about a leak . . .
Ramage was looking round the horizon with his telescope when Aitken said laconically: "Their pump has stopped."
Ramage swung round with his telescope. There was no more water streaming out of the pump dale and pouring over the side. The pump must have blocked, or the cranked handle jammed.
For a moment Ramage imagined himself in the French captain's position: now would be the time of black despair. Water would still be pouring in through the leak, and now he could only get the men bailing with buckets - a hopeless job if the pump was being overwhelmed.
The rolling was getting worse: or, Ramage corrected himself, getting better. The French rate of fire was being badly affected: for longer and longer periods the guns were either pointing too high or too low to be fired. Even better, from the British point of view, the heavy roll was exposing the underwater hull so that roundshot could smash through copper sheathing and make more holes in the hull to increase the leaks.
"Ah - there goes the pump again!''' Aitken called as he caught sight of a small stream of water starting to run over the side again. "Not the full flow. Must be a blockage - or maybe it's been damaged by one of our shot.''
Ramage watched as Le Jason slowly rolled to larboard again, checked and then slowly began to roll back to starboard. Then he saw men gathering at the foot of the main shrouds.
"They're going to furl the maintopsail," he said to Aitken. "They want to try to reduce the rolling. Stand by to heave-to."
At that moment the Calypso fired another broadside, and the group of men scattered, many of them vanishing below the bulwarks as roundshot cut them down.
But the French frigate continued her rolling: the movement was getting massive and wild now; her masts were slicing great arcs through the sky and, Ramage realized, it would be only a matter of time before the gunports dipped into the water.
Prisoners - or survivors, call them what you will: more than two hundred of them. No, he was not going to risk having them on board all the way to Naples: in fact with the island of Capraia just astern that was as far as he would take them. They would be prisoners on the island - unless they set to and made rafts - and they would be no danger to anyone, though they would run the local people short of food.
The French captain seemed to have given up trying to lighten the ship - he could still cut yards adrift, and he had not thrown all the booms and gratings over the side yet - but Ramage knew he must have given up: a hole in the hull which let in a leak which overcame the pump was the ultimate; apart from fire, it was the end.
With the freshening wind driving the frigate ahead, the rolling caused by the leak was giving her a curious corkscrew motion through the water, as though she was reluctant to move. Ramage watched as she rolled heavily towards him, paused for several agonizing seconds well heeled over, and then slowly rolled back again, to pause before returning.
"She hasn't got much more time," Southwick commented.
"Neither have we," Ramage said. "I've changed my mind: we'll put the survivors up on the fo'c'sle. I want a couple of the aftermost guns on each side trained round on to the fo'c'sle and loaded with case. And pass the word for Rennick."
The master trotted off down the ladder, his long white hair flowing in the breeze, to arrange to have the guns slewed round and their tackles made up again. A couple of minutes later Rennick was standing in front of him, waiting for orders.
"The survivors, when we pick them up," Ramage said.
Rennick made a face. "There'll be plenty of them, sir."
"I know," Ramage said. "They might even outnumber us. But I'm going to put them on the fo'c'sle with four guns trained on them, and I want all your Marines covering them but keeping out of the way of the guns. They'll escort them from wherever they're brought on board up to the fo'c'sle. Any nonsense, they're to shoot to kill."
"After they've swum around a bit, the French might have any wrong ideas washed out of them, sir," Rennick said with a grin.
"I'm hoping so. But the point of keeping them up on the fo'c'sle is that I'm going to take them back to Capraia and dump them there. They'll only be on the fo'c'sle a couple of hours, and if they give any trouble a few whiffs of caseshot should quieten them down."
"Very well, sir," Rennick said and saluted before hurrying down the quarterdeck ladder.
Le Jason was lurching rather than rolling now: as Ramage watched the stricken ship he could imagine the hundreds of tons of water sloshing from one side and then to the other, each time the weight heeling the ship and throwing men off their feet.
"Her rate of fire is slowing down, sir," Aitken said. "The water has probably flooded her magazine, apart from the difficulty of laying the guns."
"She hasn't much time left."
"I wonder why the Frenchman hasn't hauled down his colours."
"It doesn't make much difference whether he surrenders or not," Ramage said sourly. "He's going to sink whether or not he's hauled down his colours. Anyway, he's fought well. It was his navigation that put him on that rock: but for that I think we'd have had an even tougher fight."
The more he thought about it, the more Ramage was convinced that his gunners were only wasting powder: they could not damage the enemy more effectively than she was already, and it was time for the guns' crews to get muskets and pikes, pistols and tomahawks ready for the influx of French survivors.
He gave the order to Aitken which would silence the guns for the first time since they had opened fire on the first frigate, and which would send the men to get the weapons allocated to them in the quarters bill. Most of the men had a note against their name indicating what weapons they were to have, and whether they were boarders if the Calypso should board another ship.
A sudden hush fell over the Calypso as the guns stopped firing and all that Ramage could hear was the rush of the sea against the hull and the occasional slatting of a sail. He realized that he was deafened by the broadsides and he held his nose and blew hard, but it made no difference.
Southwick hurried back to the quarterdeck. "Those guns are trained round, sir," he said. "We can't get the tackles hooked on to anything substantial, so there's no telling how they'll recoil. Still, only have to fire them once, I expect," he said complacently.
"Probably not even once," Ramage said. "We'll point them out to the French officers: that should do the trick."
Even as he spoke he watched the French frigate heel right over until her deck on the larboard side was in the water. She seemed to stay there for an age, and then, as though tired of the struggle, she very slowly capsized: the masts came down below horizontal, the yards slewing round, and the trucks of the masts dipped into the sea and then began to sink as the ship continued turning.
She turned very slowly, great bubbles of air bursting out through the hatchways and ports. Ramage saw the Tricolour dip into the water and then there were splashes as guns broke loose and dropped through the ship's side.
"Furl the maintopsail," Ramage snapped at Aitken, and to Southwick he said: "Get the boats hauled round ready."
From a distance of fifty yards Ramage found the sight of the frigate sinking both sad and, in another sense, a relief. It was sad because the sinking of any handsome ship - and Le Jason was a handsome ship - was always distressing, and yet a relief because her guns could not kill or wound any more men of the Calypso. While the boats were being hauled round alongside, Southwick was shouting orders for the boats' crews to stand by, and while the men left the guns and ran to their stations, Ramage watched Le Jason. She had turned over completely and was lying in the water like a great turtle. Her copper sheathing was green except near the waterline, where it was pitted, restored to its normal colour by shots which had torn into it 'twixt wind and water.
Great gouts of air escaped as the capsized hull rolled; then it gave a gigantic convulsion as though shaking itself free of something, and Ramage guessed that the masts had come adrift. A minute or two later he saw first one and then another mast break water close beside the hull, a tangle of spars and rigging, and now freed of their weight the hull began to slide below the surface, water erupting in' little volcanoes, propelled by random air pockets.
The surface of the sea was scattered with floating wreckage. Here and there he could see men, random black figures, clinging to spars.
Now all that was left was a great circle of smooth water, punctuated every now and again by a bubble of air coming up from the sinking ship. More pieces of wreckage, spars and other pieces of wood breaking loose came up to the surface, shooting out of the water like lances with the force of their buoyancy.
By now Aitken had the Calypso lying-to, and Ramage told him: "Get the boats away and start picking up survivors. Two Marines in every boat as guards."
Within five minutes the Calypso's four boats were rowing round, through the wreckage, dragging men out of the water and, with little ceremony, tossing them into the bottom of the boats.
The first boat came back to the Calypso with more than twenty survivors. The two Marine guards looked almost sheepish because the rescued Frenchmen were coughing or vomiting; there was no fight left in even one of them.
Rennick was waiting with Ramage by the entryport and as soon as the survivors arrived on deck they were escorted, five at a time, onto the fo'c'sle.
"We've nothing to worry about from those fellows for an hour or so," Rennick remarked.
"No, it's the old story of only a few of them being able to swim."
"I don't think many have escaped from the ship, sir," Rennick said.
Ramage shook his head. "No. I did a very rough count and saw about a hundred. Looks as though more than half of them went down with the ship."
"Yes, even though she was rolling heavily, she went very suddenly in the end."
When the third boat came alongside the cox'n shouted up: "We've got a couple of officers here, sir!"
When the two men were helped up the ship's side, clothes torn and hair soaking, Ramage walked over to them and said in French: "Perhaps you would introduce yourselves."
The elder of the two bowed, coughing at the same time: "Jean-Louis Peyrafitte, lieutenant de vaisseau, and captain of Le Jason, frigate. This," he indicated the other man, "is the second lieutenant. He was with me on the quarterdeck."
"M. Peyrafitte," Ramage said, "I am afraid you have lost at least half your ship's company."
"I know. It was my fault. I did not realize she was so near capsizing. I should have cleared the decks."
Ramage shrugged his shoulders. "It was easier to see from over here," he said quietly. "You fought until the last moment."
The Frenchman looked up for the first time. "You think so?"
Ramage nodded. "You were rolling so much that I don't know how your men aimed their guns."
Now it was the turn of the Frenchman to shrug. He gestured round the Calypso's decks and then up at the masts. "They were not very successful," he said sadly.
"They were earlier," Ramage said grimly. "I lost some good men."
He turned to Rennick. "Put a Marine guard on these two and then take them down to my cabin: they can dry off there."
Rennick was about to protest that the wardroom would be more suitable when he realized that Ramage was paying a small tribute to the French captain's bravery. "Very well, sir," he said.
Ramage saw Orsini and told him: "Go down and tell my steward to give these two men towels and dry clothes."
For more than three quarters of an hour the boats combed the wreckage for survivors, but when they were finally recalled they had found only one hundred and sixty-three men. The only officers to survive were still the two found by the third boat, the captain and second lieutenant. Most of the others, Ramage guessed, had stayed with their divisions of guns.
Finally, the four boats were hoisted on board, the foretopsail and maintopsail were hoisted, and Ramage gave orders for the Calypso to wear round and set a course for Capraia.
"I wonder what we'll find with the other frigate," Southwick said.
Ramage laughed. "You want two frigates in one day, eh?"
"I don't see why not," the master said.
"Pass the word for Bowen - providing he's not in the middle of operating. I want to know what the butcher's bill comes to."
Bowen came up on deck, his clothes still bloodstained, and reported to Ramage.
"Twelve dead from gunshot wounds and splinters, five badly wounded from splinters, and seven slightly wounded, gunshot and splinters, plus one man completely dazed when the gun was dismounted. It's only the second time I've seen such a case, but he is speechless and although he's not deaf, he doesn't understand what is said to him."
"We've been lucky," Ramage said grimly. "If Le Jason had not had that leak, we could have lost half a hundred men."
Bowen looked up at the ragged group of men up on the fo'c'sle. "At least. Are those the French survivors?"
"A hundred and sixty-three, and two officers."
"How many men did she have on board?"
"I haven't asked the captain yet, but probably about two hundred and fifty."